No easy solution to budget woes

Chris Clegg
South Peace News

High Prairie town council has refused to pass its 2020 budget despite no increase in spending.

Instead, council wants to try and find spending cuts to lessen the burden on taxpayers hit hard due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, council has agreed to scrap the cost of living increase [COLA] to employees to save about $30,000 and another $50,000 by not completing the organizational review as budgeted.

The budget presented included $10,915,871 for operations and $2,499,000 for capital projects.

Interim treasurer Dave McReynolds explained the budget at the April 14 meeting, pointing out they were “holding the line in the budget” and there was “a zero tax revenue increase”.

“It’s really important to know we’re not taking more [money],” said McReynolds.

Council heard residential assessment increased by about $7.2 million and non-residential [business] assessment by about $2.5 million. Overall, the town’s total assessment grew to $287,630,969 million from $278 million.

Both Mayor Brian Panasiuk and Councillor Debbie Rose wondered where the increased assessment came from. McReynolds replied it was due to inflation growth and a “correction from last year” on the assessment.

“It seems like a bad time for a correction” said Rose.

McReynolds said he would ask the assessors, [Warren] Powers and Associates Appraisal Services, to supply council with an explanation.

One issue worrying council immediately was the grant from Big Lakes County. The estimated figure in the budget is $775,000 but the county is facing budget problems of its own due to falling revenues.

“If that money doesn’t come through hard decisions will need to be made,” said McRey- nolds.

Ways to help citizens in tough times began a spirited debate. Rose asked if council could defer payments.

“The reality is you need that money in June to sustain the town,” said McReynolds.

Public Works Supt. Vern Walker agreed. He said they still had to pay its suppliers for gas, supplies, etc. and that the tax money allowed them to operate “and provide the essential services we provide.”

McReynolds added most municipalities are facing similar problems and are just “trying to hang in there.”

Council heard their borrowing power was high, which prompted Councillor Brian Gilroy to suggest taking money from reserves to sustain operations.

“It could happen,” said McReynolds. “Talk to the bank. There’s a lot of options that can happen.”

But, he added later, “I’m not a big fan of a deferral.”

Rose estimated half the residents are being “horribly affected” by the pandemic.

“They can’t afford to pay their taxes on June 30,” she said.

Councillor Judy Stenhouse favoured giving all taxpayers until August or September to pay “and cut down our expenses.”

“There’s no right answer,” added Councillor Arlen Quartly, adding perhaps council could cut the late penalties owing on taxes.

“People will be late no matter what,” he added, but the burden would be less.

“I can’t think of any other thing.

“Deferral means you have to pay later anyway.”

Rose asked council if they were in favour of eliminating the COLA increase due to businesses closing.

“Are we OK with that?” she asked.

“I’m not saying for one second the staff don’t deserve that. This is unprecedented. I think we should look at it differently.”

“We need to so something,” said Councillor Donna Deynaka. “We have people hurting bad in this town. How can we help the people in this town who are hurting? How can we help this community?”

Rose asked administration why a budget was presented with no change in the mill rate.

“It’s up to administration to make a recommendation,” she said.

Stenhouse suggested freezing wages and the cost of living increase.

McReynolds said council might consider using the municipal debt and borrowing power “to get us over the hump.”

Rose agreed.

“The Town of High Prairie should error on the side of humanity,” she said.

“I don’t like the fact we will see some increases…I just don’t want to see that we create any hardship to the people.”

Stenhouse agreed on the hardship but criticized the deferral option.

“I see a lot of for sale signs in High Prairie. I can’t see them jumping for joy. I don’t want to see anybody’s taxes go up.”

McReynolds reminded council the budget was fair and presented “in the Town’s best interest.”

Deynaka questioned why the library and museum were being funded while closed; McRey- nolds replied to talk to their funding partner [Big Lakes County] about possibly reducing payments.

He also reminded council no matter what decision was reached, they still needed money to operate.

After debate, Pana- siuk asked council what they wanted to do.

“Is there more we want to cut?” he asked. “What do you want?”

“Our Town employees do a phenomenal job,” said Councillor Long. “[I’d] rather our employees get COLA.”

He added council should not overlook their loyalty by not leaving for the oilpatch when they paid more.

Deynaka disagreed on the COLA matter.

“I think [the employees] understand what is happening out there. I can’t approve this budget with COLA.”

Stenhouse agreed with Deynaka on COLA.

“We don’t need the organizational review,” she added. “And we need to look at the library and museum.”

Quartly sided with Long on COLA calling it “peanuts”. He did agree to cut the organizational review.

Gilroy also agreed to cut the organizational review and asked the library and museum boards to cut their budgets.

“I could not vote for this,” he said referring to the budget as presented.

And, he reminded council what happens if the county grant is not as anticipated.

Rose said council has approved the COLA increases each year since her arrival.

“There’s no lack of appreciation for staff,” she said, but added, “I don’t believe that’s [COLA increases] happened in the private sector.

“I have a really hard time increasing it this year with what’s happening. They should be happy they have good jobs.

“I do think the organizational review is very important… I can support waiting on that as well,” she concluded.

Rose also feared public backlash.

“I don’t think we can let Chris [South Peace News} write in the paper that we gave COLA when people are laid off,” she said.

“It’s a tough time,” said Panasiuk.

Council plans to finalize the budget at its April 28 meeting, which is open to the public to attend.

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